Bard College is small enough that a certain intimacy surrounds its admissions procedures (see main story). Elsewhere in New York State, Syracuse University, one of the largest private schools in the country, is challenged to put a personal face on the process. With 12,000 undergraduates, it offers less interaction between the college and prospective students than smaller schools do, but there is still a surprising degree. About two-thirds of 17,000 to 18,000 freshman applicants are individually interviewed each year, says David C. Smith, dean of the university's 36-person admissions and financial aid office. A dozen people serve on a review committee that selects the approximately 4,000 candidates, about 35 percent of whom actually enroll.

Typically, an application is read by at least two people, and by as many as four, depending on the circumstances. ``If there are two strong approvals, that's that,'' Mr. Smith says.

Most cases clearly fall into either the accept or reject pile. Those in between, however, require significant attention. ``We spend about 80 percent of our time on 20 to 30 percent of the kids,'' he observes.

The process involves weighing high school classroom and extracurricular performance, standardized test scores, required essay statements, personal recommendations, and interviews with admissions officers.

``Most of us [in college admissions] are asking three questions about students,'' Smith says. ``What do you do, what have you done, and what can you do? This whole process is intended to resonate somehow with [the answers to] those questions.''

An example of looking closely at background to recognize potential occurred two years ago when a young woman with a low SAT score and unimpressive high school grades submitted a fascinating essay. It compellingly related her family's escape from Estonia six years earlier, revealing a developing grasp of English. She was accepted and is virtually a straight-A student.

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